Welcome to part three of my in-depth review of Donald Guay's 1990 book L'histoire du hockey au Québec: Origine et développement d'un phénomène culturel avant 1917 ("The History of Hockey in Quebec: The origin and development of a cultural phenomenon before 1917"). Please note that since the book is written in French, any time I quote from the book, I will provide both the original passage in bold italics, followed by my translation in regular italics.
In chapter one, Guay defined a sport but did not define hockey. In chapter two we finally get to some characteristics of the sport of ice hockey that can be used to differentiate it from other games and sports. Guay discusses five such characteristics, including their origins and evolution over time: the number of players, the puck, the goals, the sticks and the rink.
The first thing I notice is that one of the most basic defining characteristics of hockey is not included here: the skates. I think you'll agree that, even if a game is played on ice, it would not be considered ice hockey by our current understanding if skates are not used. Let's see what Guay has to say about the characteristics he does identify.
Number of Players
Guay points out that in the earliest recorded Montreal hockey matches, the norm was nine players per side, shrinking to seven by the early 1880s. This is fewer players than other similar sports, such as the eleven used as bandy, and as such the author suggests that this is a differentiating characteristic of ice hockey. It is, however, unwise to use something so specific to define a sport. Bandy has eleven players per side, and early hockey had nine per side. If, in a bandy match, two players on each side are sent off with penalties, does this now mean they're playing hockey, since they now have nine per side, and nine per side is characteristic of hockey?
Moreover, there is a version of bandy called rink bandy that was developed in the 1960s in Sweden, that is played in hockey rinks with six players per side. How are we to differentiate between ice hockey and rink bandy, if the lower number of players is supposed to be a defining characteristic of ice hockey? This illustrates that when defining what a game is, referring to specific rules is a bad idea, since rules change over time and can lead to overlaps such as this.
Guay goes on to discuss how the number of players in ice hockey was gradually reduced, first to seven and then to six in the early 1910s when the rover was eliminated in eastern hockey, a move which the western leagues were slower to adopt. Guay discusses the rover a bit, and notes that sports writer Andy O'Brien claimed that players at this position were not subject to any rules, and were allowed to go anywhere on the ice at any time. That is, the strict offside rules of the time did not apply to the rover. This is simply hogwash. The position was called a rover not because of the rules, but because of the roles forwards played on offence. Art Farrell, in Hockey: Canada's Royal Winter Game (1899), explained that while the centre played the middle of the ice and the wings their own sides, the rover was supposed to go wherever he was most needed to support the other forwards.
To Guay's credit, he does not suggest that O'Brien's claim is accurate, stating that he was unable to corroborate it. Of course, he could have simply referred to the rules from this time, and he would have found it was complete bollocks. Indeed, the fact that he needed to try to corroborate this suggests that Guay is not very familiar with the game as it was played at this time. There is nothing mysterious about the rover, it was simply another forward.
Guay begins here by noting that in the 1870s, hockey was played with a rubber ball like that used in bandy, shinty, hurling and field hockey. For the first Montreal match on March 3, 1875, however, a circular piece of wood was used, in order to protect the spectators. Guay states that this was specified to be an exception, however, and that until 1885 matches of ice hockey played outside, at least, used a ball and not a puck.
We can go through the newspaper game summaries from 1875 to 1884 to see if this lines up with history. In these years, I can find reports for ten different matches that refer to the object of play by one name or another.
March 3, 1875: Montreal Gazette (03 Mar 1875) refers to a "flat circular piece of wood"; Montreal Gazette (04 Mar 1875) refers to a "block of wood"; Montreal Daily Witness (04 Mar 1875) refers to a "flat piece of board."
March 15, 1875: Montreal Gazette (17 Mar 1875) refers to a "little circle of wood."
February 5, 1876: Montreal Gazette (07 Feb 1876) refers to a "puck." This is the first recorded instance of "puck" used in this manner. It may be derived from the same term used in hurling, where "to puck" the ball means to strike the ball.
February 1, 1877: Montreal Daily Witness (02 Feb 1877) refers to a "hockey block" and a "wooden block." This is consistent with matches to this date, and it's clear that the were still using a wooden puck to play hockey. However, the report also refers to the puck as "the ball" in one instance. This suggests that sometimes the term ball was still used to refer to the puck, even though it was not a ball in the sense of a spherical object. This will become more certain later on.
February 26, 1877: Montreal Gazette (27 Feb 1877) refers to a "ball" nine times. However, given the February 1, 1877 reference we cannot be sure that this actually means a spherical ball and not a puck.
March 6, 1879: Montreal Gazette (07 Mar 1879) refers to a "ball." See comments above.
February 16, 1882: Quebec Morning Chronicle (17 Feb 1882) refers to a "puck" twice.
January 27, 1883: This was the final match of the 1883 Montreal Winter Carnival, and was played at the Victoria rink, and not the St. Lawrence River as the previous games in the tournament. Quebec Morning Chronicle (29 Jan 1883) refers to a "puck" six times, a "ball" five times and a "rubber" three times. This makes it quite clear that the term "ball" was sometimes used to mean the puck. Montreal Gazette (29 Jan 1883) refers to a "rubber" twice, a "ball" twice and a "bully" twice.
February 5, 1884: Montreal Gazette (06 Feb 1884) refers to a "ball."
February 7, 1884: Montreal Gazette (08 Feb 1884) refers to a "rubber." This match, and the match above, were part of the 1884 Winter Carnival. The matches in this year's carnival were all played at the McGill rink, which was an outdoor rink, not covered like the Victoria or Crystal rinks.
Taken all together, it seems clear that the puck used on March 3, 1875 was not an exception in the sense of being a one-time thing, but in the sense of a persistent change from the previous norm. It seems to be a change that stuck. Some confusion can arise given that it also seems that the term "ball" was used sometimes even when the object was flat and circular, like the puck we know. Apparently "ball" could have the generic meaning of the thing that you play the game with, and did not necessarily mean a sphere. So perhaps Guay read the February 5, 1884 report and saw the word "ball", and figured this meant that this outdoor game was played using a rubber sphere. Given the information above, we cannot make this assumption, and indeed it seems likely the object was pucklike in nature.
Of course, it is possible that the converse was the case; that the term "puck" became the generic term, even was the object was actually a sphere. However it's very unlikely that such a new term would become the widely-accepted generic term for such an object in such a short period of time. We have evidence that ball was the generic term. In a game report in the Montreal Daily Herald of 08 Feb 1887 made reference to a puck four times, and a ball once. We know, according to AHAC rules written before that season, that a flat, disklike puck is the object that would be used in the match. As such it seems clear that puck was a specific term meaning a flat disc used for hockey, while ball could be used to mean any object of play in similar games.
Although Guay appears to be incorrect about the use of pucks and balls in early Montreal hockey, he is correct when he says this:
«Cette modification, si elle semble banale à première vue, apporte un élément essentiel qui va distinguer davantage le hockey des autres jeux et sports alors pratiqués, tels que le shinty, le bandy, le hurling ou le hockey sur gazon qui se pratique tous avec une balle, mais de différents grosseurs. Il devient possible de manier, de contrôler la rondelle qui glisse sur la glace, ce qui permet aux jouers de se déplacer rapidement avec la rondelle et de mieux maîtriser des «combinaisons», c'est-à-dire le jeu d'ensemble. Le technique de base est le «stick handling» ou maniement du bâton qui permet de développer de nombreuses techniques qui demeurent très difficiles, sinon impossible avec une balle» (p.54)
"This change, seemingly trivial at first glance, brought an essential element which would further distinguish hockey from other games and sports played at the time, such as shinty, bandy, hurling or field hockey which are played with balls of various sizes. It made it possible to handle, to control the puck while it glides along the ice, which permits the players to move rapidly with the puck and to better use "combinations", that is, passing plays. The basic technique is stick handling, which allows the development of techniques which would be very difficult if not impossible with a ball."
I reached this very same conclusion in On His Own Side of the Puck. The change to a puck was originally done only to protect spectators, but it had great unintended consequences. The greater "science" that it allowed in ice hockey is surely one of the reasons that the popularity of the sport increased so dramatically in Canada in such a short period of time.
This section is uncontroversial, with Guay providing a fine summary of the evolution of the goal posts, and later goal nets, used in ice hockey. One item of note is that Guay asserts that the posts were eight feet apart in 1875, which is based on a reference in the report for the March 3, 1875 game in Montreal. However, the report only stated that the goals were "about" eight feet apart, and it's not clear if the writer was referring to the goals used in the hockey match, or to lacrosse goals, which the game was being compared to at the time. So ultimately, until the 1886 rules specified how far apart the goals were to be, we don't know for certain how far apart they were.
Guay briefly discusses early sticks, noting that the shape of the blade is different from sticks for other sports such as field hockey, bandy and shinty. Pretty straightforward stuff.
Finally, Guay notes that ice hockey is played on a smaller surface than other similar sports. Hockey's standard is about 200 by 85 feet, while bandy used about 300 feet by 150 feet. But once again, even though hockey used a smaller surface, using this as a defining characteristic of hockey is problematic. How long and wide does the playing surface have to be before hockey becomes bandy? If the rink is 250 feet long, is this characteristic of hockey or bandy? If a game, using hockey equipment and rules, is played on a bandy-sized surface, is it no longer hockey? If bandy is played in a hockey rink, is it no longer bandy? This is why specific dimensions should be avoided is trying to define what hockey is, and how it is different from similar sports such as bandy.
After all this, Guay suggests that it is because ice hockey had written rules that the sport overtook traditional British games such as field hockey, bandy, shinty and hurling. I'm really not sure what to make of this statement, since ice hockey took its first written rules from the written rules of English field hockey's written rules, and the author knows this. Bandy also had published rules before ice hockey came into being. As such, Guay does a fairly poor job in defining what hockey is and how it is different from similar sports. He discusses some of the characteristics that hockey has, but does not really define what hockey is. Notably, he leaves skates out of the equation entirely, even when comparing it to sports that are not played on ice and do not use skates, though all that is really needed is the puck to differentiate it from similar sports, to which the author does give proper credit.